Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What Ails Kenyan Literature (Part 8) - Purple Prose


‘He that uses many words for the explanation of any subject doth, like the cuttlefish, hide himself for the most part in his own ink.’ – John Ray, On the Creation

‘The things you say / Your purple prose just gives you away / The things you say / You’re
unbelievable.’ - EMF, Unbelievable (song)

She was a rather annoying fan. She got my number from a newspaper reporter who had done a story on my literary journey. She also wanted to try out ‘this e-book thing.’ I answered all her questions and thought that that would be it. It wasn’t. Almost every day when I entered my office in Lang’ata, I would be informed that ‘she’ had called. She had many questions which she fired like arrows from a quiver and I did my best to answer them all. Some time after I turned her on to an e-book system, I logged on to the website to take a peek at her work (with e-books, you can read the first few pages for free since it doesn’t wear out the books). I was impressed. She had a very vivid imagination and had constructed a wonderful fantasy story. She could be Kenya’s J. K. Rowling and should probably market herself as such. There was just one problem: She wrote in purple prose.

Purple prose is written or spoken high-falutin language; language that is a lot harder than it needs to be. People usually use it in an attempt to impress others, to appear highly educated.
But it gets old really quickly. Listen to this neat description by a man talking to his female psychiatrist in Heywood Gould’s crime thriller, Double Bang[1]:

‘You have beautiful breasts and you wear dark silk so that they can stir around behind it like assassins behind a curtain.’

In the hands of a Kenyan purple prose writer, that sentence would probably come out like this:

‘You are in possession of mammary glands that generate sexual interest when they appear on one’s retina and you clothe your constitution in dark, glossy, materials that allow said mammaries to maneuver not unlike would-be killers hiding behind a textile barrier.’

Notice that when you use purple prose, the sentences tend to be much longer than necessary.
Here are a couple more examples:

Normal prose: People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.
Purple prose: Individuals who make their abodes in vitreous edifices would be advised to refrain from catapulting perilous projectiles.

Normal prose: You can't teach an old dog new tricks
Purple prose: It is fruitless to attempt to indoctrinate a superannuated canine with innovative maneuvers.
Phillip Ochieng’ (I Accuse the Press) is a veteran Kenyan writer. I don’t know much about him but I understand he edited an influential political magazine, called The Weekly Review, in the ’80s. He is very highly spoken of, so I suppose he has many fans despite his prose being the kind that keeps sending one to the dictionary. Here’s a sample of Mr. Ochieng’s writing:

‘I am no Pygmallion, the hero of this Pelasgic myth. But I have been a word surgeon all my working life. I have removed from “copy” – the print equivalent of the body – some hideous warts and abscesses which have invaded the justice system of language.’

If you’re thinking, ‘What?!’, then you’re not alone. I must confess that I have never actually finished reading anything by Philip Ochieng’. I tried following his Sunday column but I could never get past the first few paragraphs. Purple was the prose.



[1] ‘Brutally funny…the guy is some writer.’ – The Philadelphia Inquirer